Procrastination and the Fear of Death

If a psychoanalyst, testing his associations, had suddenly said to Mr. Salter the word “farm” the surprising response would have been “Bang!”—for he had once been blown up and buried while sheltering in a farm in Flanders. It was his single intimate association with the soil. It had left him with the obstinate although admittedly irrational belief that agriculture was something alien and highly dangerous

.—Scoop by Evelyn Waugh

The title Procrastination and the Fear of Death does not quite describe the issues I want to discuss here:

  1. When I am in a period of waiting to find out whether I have cancer or not and how dangerous it might be, does it make more sense to be positive or negative?
  2. What advice is useful and how do I decide how to use it?
  3. Is this period of waiting one of special significance where I decide the direction my life will take or is it more prudent to hold fast to firmly held convictions and patterns of behavior until the immediate question of mortality resolves itself?
  4. Is this the time when I resolve a lifelong pattern of procrastination?

Does it make more sense to be positive or negative?

When I was 28, while showering I found a lump in the pit of my right arm. At the time, I was in therapy.

By way of explanation, I was taught psychotherapy at my mother’s knee. More precisely, I was in her womb when I attended my first therapy session.

My mother Miriam prided herself on being “a pioneer.” One example she used frequently was that she was a breast feeding advocate at the time shortly after World War II when formula feeding was the rage.

Miriam had a distressingly bad childhood. I believe it took considerable courage to embrace psychotherapy at a time when it was not fashionable but she badly needed help.

Why I found therapy beneficial is another story. This story begins with my telling my therapist that a surgeon had removed a tumor and I was awaiting the results of a pathologist. What do you recommend I do?

Dr. Weisberg (I always called him Paul) recommended pessimism.

He suggested I spend the waiting period reading Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying and familiarize myself with the five primary stages of death:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

[To peak ahead, consult Wikipedia’s helpful but incomplete entry.]

knightdure 469x600

Paul’s advice was eccentric, even a little weird. The odds were overwhelming—over 90 percent my oncologist said–that the tumor the surgeon removed was benign. After all, I was physically healthy. I even gave thought to riding my red Taiwanese bicycle three miles to the biopsy.

My well informed, but controlling oncologist Amiel Segal had told me: Relax, there is probably nothing to worry about. He added:

You are not crazy enough to see a therapist when you can talk to me.

Plus: Dump your girlfriend she is too old for you.

I decided to follow Paul’s advice.

By the time I learned I did indeed have something to worry about, I was fluent with the five stages; albeit, still stuck in denial.

In retrospect, it was not surprising I learned I had cancer in the waiting room of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture.

At the time, I was covering food policy for The New Republic and the scheduled interview with Secretary Earl Butz was a real coup. While waiting, I dialed my telephone answering machine.

Dr. Segal had called several times leaving increasingly urgent messages. I called Dr. Segal (whom I thereafter called by his first name; a policy I pursued with subsequent physicians on the grounds they called me by my first name).

Amiel told me to get to his office immediately. When I told him I had an appointment with the Secretary of Agriculture, he insisted I abandon it.

The Secretary of Agriculture is more important than you, I said.

Tell me over the phone.

I can’t tell you over the phone, he said.

That is how I found out I had cancer.


Then there was my second cancer and my third. Now there is now.

Now I am not consulting anyone about what I should do during this waiting period. I am assuming the worst and would be pleased if I am wrong.

The second question which began this posting may seem to have been answered above in italics. Next, I will have more to say about: What advice is useful and how do I decide how to use it?

In case I have not mentioned it: This waiting period is tough.

–Joel Solkoff

Copyright 2014© by Joel Solkoff. All rights reserved.



One thought on “Procrastination and the Fear of Death”

  1. Since you have answered your first question, I will only answer the other three.

    2. Advice is useful if it helps you avoid needless suffering. You decide how to use it by trying it out and seeing whether you are able to follow it, and if so whether your suffering decreases. Advice is also useful if it helps you make practical decisions in a more effective way. This is harder to judge, but usually the more you know, the better your decisions.

    3. The immediate question of mortality is only one of degree, as mortality is certain. Rarely are we actually in a position to decide the direction our lives will take. You must judge whether you are in fact (rather than just in aspiration) in such a fortunate position. It is prudent to hold to well-examined and well-earned convictions and patterns of behavior, if that’s indeed what they are, unless and until changes appear merited by experience or circumstances. It is never a good idea to change established belief and conduct under pressure of emergency, as that distorts judgment. Therefore it seems that your present peril is not only not a signal to change your beliefs and behavior, it is a signal to be especially cautious and conservative about doing so, UNLESS THEY ARE CAUSING YOU SUFFERING. If so, they should be changed for that reason, and not because of transient circumstances.

    4. The obvious answer is, of course, that you should NEVER change your habit of procrastination NOW, but ALWAYS wait for a more opportune time LATER. But seriously, folks – if you hear time’s wingèd chariot drawing near, and there is stuff you want to get done before the curtain falls (whenever that might be, and you know neither the day nor the hour), then decide which feels better: working toward your goals, or not working toward them. There is no right answer to this – you don’t owe anyone further accomplishment – it depends only on what feels better. Not working toward your goals, but feeling guilty about it, is the worst option – you should avoid that one completely.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.